Google Fusion Tables: Making Big Data Easier to See

By | Apr 23, 2012

The Google Fusion Tables app has gotten new features designed to make data patterns easier to visualize. Google's efforts with Fusion Tables underlines one of the greatest and yet subtlest challenges in business analytics: making data visible to the user.

We now have the data streams and computing horsepower to organize vast amounts of data. And "Big Data" has entered the popular idiom. But for data to be useful, it has to be presented in a way that allows the human eye to identify patterns. Only then can we grasp the significance of those patterns and convert business analytics into business intelligence.

An Obscure Art

As reported by Cameron Scott at InfoWorld, Google is putting serious effort into what Scott describes as the "obscure art of data visualization." The new features added to Google Fusion Tables, the company's online analytics visualization app, include a network graph for showing connections in a social network. Additional features are the ability to choose subsets of data for display, as on a map, and a Fusion Tables API, available to "trusted testers," that provides data in JSON format for easy manipulation using Javascript.

As an online visualizing tool, Fusion Tables does not seem to have any immediate direct competitors. But in a slightly broader focus, Fusion Tables is in competition with such major business intelligence (BI) solutions as TIBCO Spotfire and BI toolkits from SAP and Oracle. All of these solutions offer data visualization capabilities as a major selling point. Visualization may be an obscure art, but users intuitively understand that finding ways to show information effectively is a challenge.

Lying Eyes?

The old joke goes, Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes? But the problem is not so much that our eyes lie, but that they fail to "see" things.

As an example, to anyone today who spends much time under dark night skies (away from city lights), the glow of the Milky Way is highly informative. Even to the naked eye it is brightest toward Sagittarius--pointing the way to the center of our galaxy. People have seen those stars for thousands of years, but it was not until last century that astronomers understand what they were seeing.

It is the same with most of the insights that can potentially be drawn from business analytics and Big Data. Patterns that are obvious once we "see" and understand them have to be brought into view in a way that makes their significance clear.

IT shops at midsized firms are major customers for BI solutions. These firms can now obtain data sets and the processing power to analyse those sets on a scale not imagined just a few years ago. But the users of BI tools are often left disappointed by limitations in their ability to display data in a meaningful way. Thus, improvements in the "obscure art" of visualizing data are crucial to allowing midsize firms to get the most out of big data.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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